The Kyrgyz boy, watching me struggle to direct my horse down a narrow mountain pass, looked up, bewildered.
"It's your first Kyrgyz horse?" he asked.
Well, yes. My first horse ever, really. And my first time trying to guide an animal across a landscape as rugged and unforgiving as the Wakhan Corridor, where explorers have fought altitude sickness since Marco Polo’s 13th century trek.
We were at 15,000 feet when it became clear that my horse was going to take me where it wanted. The Kyrgyz boy laughed each time the stallion bucked. I thought of myself as part of a great tradition of inept outsiders, drawn to Afghanistan’s most remote corner but unfit to survive there.
There’s a lot to be drawn to. The Wakhan is one of the world’s most stunning places, a narrow plain surrounded by towering peaks, sandwiched between Tajikistan, China and Pakistan. For a journalist who spends much of his time in Afghanistan’s embattled south and east, it also offered a rare escape from the threat of insurgent attacks.
The Taliban has never visited the corridor. One of the few guns we saw was being used to prop up a windblown yurt. It was an entirely different Afghanistan from the one I knew. Safer, yes, but also untouched and unaided by the outside world.
Read Kevin Sieff’s full story on the Wakhan here.
Almost everywhere else I’ve been has offered evidence of the past decade’s massive foreign intervention. There’s always a school or a clinic or a military base with a sign bearing the flag of a donor nation. In the Wakhan, though, little has changed in centuries.
Half of the corridor’s ethnic Kyrgyz children die before age 5. Getting to a school or a rudimentary hospital means walking for several days. The only accessible medicine is opium.
The people of the Wakhan are impossibly tough. When we arrived in mid-June, it snowed for almost two days straight. We tucked ourselves into North Face sleeping bags while the locals walked around in plastic sandals. As I struggled to rein in my horse, our Kyrgyz crew walked effortlessly up some of Asia’s highest peaks.
But inside the yurts that line the corridor, that strength had eroded. A sick child languished without access to medicine in a family where three other children had already died. An old man filled his pipe with opium that had cost him one of his family’s sheep.
Those who were healthy enough to consider leaving thought of nothing else.
I landed back in Kabul, a city that grows denser and more polluted each season, just in time to miss another Taliban attack.
There were freshly paved roads, shiny new shopping centers, signs everywhere of a place obsessed with its own modernization.
I missed the openness of the Wakhan, the narrow, endless plain carved by a glacier at the roof of the world. But the residents of the Wakhan rightly want some of what Kabul has gained, and they’re willing to trade anything for it.